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Climate change, food security and sustaining peace

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‘We have succeeded at keeping famine at bay, we have not kept suffering at bay’, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres while briefing members of the UN Security Council on 12 October. Explaining the impediments to an effective response to the risks of famine in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, and, Guterres named conflict as a root cause of famine.

Guterres is right. In fact, a recent report on the state of the world’s food security—jointly published by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO)—puts the number of people affected both by hunger and conflict at 489 million. That is about 60 per cent of the 815 million people suffering worldwide from hunger and malnutrition. The report further details that the connection between conflict and hunger is especially notable ‘where the food security impacts of conflict were compounded by droughts or floods, linked in part to the El Niño phenomenon’. There appears to be a general consensus among UN agencies that conflict, as a root cause of hunger and malnutrition, needs to be addressed. Evidently, this is easier said than done.

Complex conflict, comprehensive peacebuilding

Building peace in post-conflict countries is rarely, if ever, straightforward. International actors often face insurmountable challenges when programming and implementing their projects. In addition to stopping violence, the aim of their work is to set states and societies on a peaceful path. Yet, the food-security situation clearly shows that the indirect, long-term effects of war further exaggerate this challenge. Many of these challenges relate to political and social aspects of post-war countries, such as human rights abuses, reconciliation and justice, as well as economic recovery and public health. Environmental and climate change expose post-conflict states further to new risks, exaggerating the human costs of war long after active combat has ceased.

The Lake Chad Basin is sadly one of the key examples of this dynamic. The ongoing insurgency in the region and the continued shrinking of Lake Chad (which is the main source of livelihood for millions of inhabitants) are causing a massive humanitarian crisis, intensifying the fragile security situation and increasing the cross-border displacement of populations. The Report of the Secretary-General points out: ‘Some 10.7 million people across the Lake Chad Basin region currently need humanitarian assistance, including 8.5 million in Nigeria.’ According to the report, 7.2 million people currently suffer severe food insecurity in the region, of which 4.7 million are located in the north-eastern Nigeria.

The interconnectedness of food security, natural resources, peace and conflict is not new to anyone familiar with fragile and conflict-affected states. The question is how to reverse this negative spiral. It is instrumental to focus on the questions of how interventions are interacting with other factors, what negative side effects may appear and how to reduce or, even better, prevent them. But, most of all, the reversal of this spiral involves developing a mindset that goes beyond ‘do no harm’ doctrines. In practice, that means focus and emphasis must be placed on opportunities and synergies to equally end hunger, reduce poverty, foster a healthy ecosystem, support sustainable natural resource management and, ultimately, to help sustain peace.

How can governments and international agencies better respond to food security in post-conflict settings?

Acknowledge complexity. Involved actors must acknowledge the complex underlying dimensions of the problem. While Guterres emphasizes conflict as a root cause, he downplayed the role of environmental and climate change—both in his current and previous assessments. His previous assessment of the humanitarian crisis around Lake Chad fell short of addressing and acknowledging the underlying environmental dynamics that significantly affect the water and food security of local communities in the region and make them vulnerable to insurgent recruitment.

Improve assessment capacity. There is a need for more integrated risk assessments that focus on climate and environmental factors, but also social, political and economics. For example, climate-related security risks are not just related to climate but are part of larger social–ecological processes and interactions that need to be better understood. The assessments must seek to understand the role of women, local contexts and the inclusion of marginalized groups, especially with regard to access to natural resources.

Be prepared. Both states and international state actors have to understand the state–society relationship—before, during and after crisis. One key way governments can increase their ability to cope with shock is to simply be prepared. This is of course difficult in conflict-affected states and, admittedly, often one of the actual sources of post-conflict fragility. Yet, supporting government efforts to focus on the state–society relationship is necessary, because a state that focuses on the delivery of services to those it is suppose to serve is a state that cares about its inhabitants. Service delivery is fundamental in two ways: one, it reduces vulnerability and increases resilience; and two, it reduces distrust towards the government. Without a certain level of trust between state and society, shocks cannot be adequately addressed.

Think holistically. Lastly, there is a tendency, especially among UN agencies—often due to their mandate—to treat issues such as food security and natural resources as technical issues in need of a technical solution. This approach is doomed to fail because, fundamentally, access to food, land and other natural resources—like the conflicts themselves—are deeply political processes. They need to be treated as such.

Future Steps

Unquestionably, within the past year with Guterres at the helm, space has opened within the UN system to more frequently discuss the questions of sustaining peace and conflict prevention. The strategies above are some examples that enable national and international actors to successfully get at the root causes of food insecurity in conflict-affected states. Each of these steps must explicitly include a focus on gender as a crucial, yet often neglected, dimension. Most importantly, in addition to understanding risk, there is a need to further shift the discourse of intervention programming and implementation towards opportunity. Will such an approach stop conflicts and prevent people from taking up arms? Absolutely not. But the evidence is clear that it will make it much harder for insurgent groups to mobilize people for their cause.

First published in SIPRI.org

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New Satellite Animations of Earth Show How Quickly Humans Are Changing the Planet

MD Staff

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A new website that combines dramatic images from space with expert analysis of how humans are changing the planet will launch on World Earth Day (22 April).

EarthTime ties together diverse data layers to show the patterns and connections behind some of the major social and political trends of the past two decades – and how they are inscribed into fast-changing landscapes.

The platform has already been used in public outreach in schools and museums, and to inform world leaders at World Economic Forum events of major environmental and geoeconomic shifts, from air pollution to inequality. It uses images captured by NASA satellites since 1984.

The vision, and long-term goal, is to better inform everyone – including individuals, business heads and policy-makers – about the lives we lead, the decisions we make and the impact we have on the planet.

Nine expert analyses on global challenges will be launched on World Earth Day (22 April): deforestation, city growth, coral bleaching, fires at night, glaciers, renewables, sea-level rise, surface-water gain and loss and urban fragility. Other layers will be added in the months and years ahead. You can see them at www.earthtime.org.

EarthTime was developed by CREATE Lab (the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, in partnership with the World Economic Forum. It draws on the Forum’s network of experts to give analyses and to tell stories. Users will soon be able to create their own stories.

EarthTime uses more than 300 free, open-source, geospatial datasets – an unprecedented number for visualizations of this kind. Expert opinions make sense of the data and the connections between them allowing a layering of narratives (e.g., how did rise in the global demand for meat trigger deforestation, a major contributor to climate change?). These stories are combined with images from space captured by NASA satellites between 1984 and 2016.

Current datasets come from the World Bank, the UNHCR, NASA, Berkeley Earth, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Climate Central, S&P Global, Kudelski, the International Renewable Energy Agency and WWF, to name a few. New data providers are being added constantly.

“EarthTime tries to build the common ground that we believe is essential to the discourse that we all must have as stewards of our planet and our joint future,” said Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, and Director, CREATE Lab.

“The Earth is changing dramatically. No single discipline can make sense of all that is now happening and no citizen is free from the consequences of what we all do next. We all must be involved in understanding Earth’s changes and how we can work together to bring about our desired sustainable future into reality.”

Nourbakhsh also serves as a Global Future Council member at the World Economic Forum. His research focuses on human-robot collaboration.

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Human Footprint Devastating Wildlife: An Article For Earth Day

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Animals can be beautiful; they can be sleek, graceful, powerful, or just plain adorable, even cuddly.   A field of wild flowers chanced upon can take your breath away.  Wordsworth so moved by ‘a host of golden daffodils’ put pen to paper, and we are richer for his poem.  And tourists in their thousands visit coral reefs for their stunning beauty and sea life.  So it is distressing when scientists confirm our gut feelings about the human footprint on this natural environment.

Few people know that March 3 was World Wildlife Day, or this coming Sunday (April 22) is Earth Day — perhaps Trump sucking up all the media oxygen is responsible.  The fact remains, world wildlife is under serious threat, and in ways we can’t even imagine — not forgetting the eventual disaster due to climate change, unless the world wakes up.

Not so long ago Science, the voice of AAAS America’s largest science body, published three papers describing the harmful, even devastating, impact of modern human presence.

The first is a mammoth global study spanning the four major continents and New Zealand.  Authored by over one hundred scientists, it follows the movements of 57 mammalian species through the GPS-tracking of 803 individuals.  It finds a strong negative effect of the human footprint on animal movement.

The scientists develop a human footprint index (HFI) comprising multiple aspects of human influence:  built environment, croplands, pastures, nighttime lights, roads, waterways, railroads, population density, etc.  On the animal side, they note and separate the effects of resource availability and body mass on vagility (migration distances) — larger species travel further as do carnivores.

They then compute animal movement as the distance between subsequent GPS locations over nine time scales ranging from one hour to 10 days.  At each time scale and for each individual, they calculate the median (middle range) and longest distance movements. These procedures point to the thoroughness of their research.

Overall the findings indicate a decline in movement of mammals in high HFI areas ranging on average from one-half to one-third of their movement levels in areas without human presence.  For example, the median displacement of carnivores over the 10 day period in high HFI areas was only about half when compared to zero impact regions.  And the long distance movement over the same period in HFI areas was down to a third, averaging 6.6 km versus 21.5 km.  The impact on feeding and breeding then is clearly severe.

The authors note the consequences for ecosystem function globally, the effects being critical for wildlife conservation and also in the spread of disease.  In the latter aspect, the authors warn that “reduced vagility may go beyond ecosystem functioning to directly affect human well-being.”  In their understated words it means dangers of animal extinction and human epidemics.

Most of us always assume all bees are good.  Apparently not, as a couple of scientists explain.  So as we reach for that honey jar … ; it all depends on where it came from. That is the contention of the second piece which assesses the impact of managed honey bees on wild bees and other pollinators.

Pointing to the rapid global growth in managed bee colonies and the attention devoted to them, the authors believe this focus reduces efforts to preserve wild pollinators so necessary for wild plants and flowers.  In fact, high densities of such bees worsen the decline of these wild pollinators, and have also been linked to the spread of disease via shared wild flowers.  Long term this is a worsening threat to wild plants and flowers, many facing extinction.

The authors identify managed honeybees and their honey production and pollination of commercial crops as an agricultural issue, not an ecological one.  They advocate restriction of managed honey beehives in protected-ecological areas to reduce their harmful effects  noting that half of all European wild bees are threatened with extinction.

The theme for Earth Day is End Plastic Pollution.  If one ever wondered what can happen to a plastic bag discarded carelessly, the following research has a surprising and worrying answer.

This third Science article looks at plastic waste entering the oceans, often through catchment areas into rivers feeding into the ocean.  It assesses the influence of such waste on disease in reef-building corals.  The authors survey 159 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific, a region containing 55.5 percent of global reefs and 73 percent of the human population living within 50 km of a coast — about a quarter billion people.

An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste pollutes the oceans each year.  A model based on a high end figure of 8 million estimates that more than a quarter of this is pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight in Asia.  Of these the Yangtze alone dumps 1.5 million metric tons each year.  The river waste is a result of mismanagement and clearly can be reduced given resources and better waste collection and disposal practices.

In the oceans, microbes hitch a ride on the plastic, living longer and increasing their chances of landing on an unfortunate host.  The authors have measured plastic items per 100 square meters.  The count can vary from a low of 0.4 in Australia to a high of 25.6 in Indonesia.  Size of human population in coastal regions, good management or mismanagement of plastic waste disposal are all factors in the amount of waste entering the water.

The authors estimate 80 percent of marine plastic debris originates from land, thus offering a possibility of significant reduction through better waste management.  They develop a prediction model showing that by 2025 the waste will almost double in low-income countries like Myanmar but will edge up just 1 percent in Australia.  In total, they estimate a colossal 11.1 billion plastic items entangled on reefs across the Asia-Pacific region and expect the number to increase 40 percent by 2025 without stronger waste management intervention.

The study results are striking.  The likelihood of disease rises from 4 percent in areas free of plastic to an average of 89 percent when the coral has such debris.  Another issue is coral structural complexity which underpins micro-habitats for reef-reliant organisms.  Unfortunately, the study finds that plastic debris is up to 8 times more likely to affect reefs with greater structural complexity.  This lack of habitat can devastate fisheries through a drop in productivity by a factor of three.  Thus public awareness here could be a critical factor.

The parrots in the local pet store are almost always at risk.  It is human encroachment the owner tells us.  Forests are cut down, reducing habitat and food sources, and diminishing parrot populations.  Farmers plant crops in the cleared areas.  The parrots may or may not eat these but are perceived as a threat and often killed, further endangering them.

Once upon a time, millions of rhinos roamed across Africa and Asia; now about 30,000 survive, and many species are extinct or about to be.  Sudan, the last male northern white rhino lived at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya together with his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu.  He was 45, equivalent to 90 in human age, and quite infirm.  Earlier this year, when his condition deteriorated to the extent he was unable to stand, the vets decided to euthanize.  Hope lies with in vitro fertilization, and in the genetic material the vets collected from him.  At some future date, it might be possibly to use this to create an embryo with stem cell technology.

The engaging, lovable and cuddly koala is in danger from environmental effects.  its unusual diet of eucalyptus leaves carry a toxin it can usually handle, but increased CO2 levels reduce nutrition and eating more leads to ingesting more poison.  Add to this the Australian drought drying the leaves, leaving little moisture and resulting in kidney damage.

The human footprint also threatens the snow leopard, most closely related to the tiger not its namesake.  Ranging across the high mountain areas of central Asia, China and Mongolia, and revered in Kyrgyzstan, it has become a victim of human-wildlife conflict.  The herders whose livelihood depends on their sheep, goats and yaks do not take kindly to raiding snow leopards.  But their natural prey, the wild ungulates are suffering sharp declines due to competition with domestic herds.  Yet this animal is an example of what a concerted effort to save a species can accomplish.  Its status has been upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’.

Altogether, these studies and cases convey a stark warning.  They show that environmental degradation is the promise of a dismal future in which mammalian wildlife is scarce, wild pollinators and consequently wild flowers and plants are sparse, and beautiful coral reefs succumb to plastic waste-borne bacteria depleting reef-supported fisheries.  This is our legacy unless we take a step back to reassess human wants for their impact on the environment.

Author’s note:  A version of this article appeared in Common Dreams

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Green Planet

Namibia Enlists the IAEA to Help Study its Marine Ecosystem Supporting Key Fisheries

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Namibia's coast is home to protected species like these flamingos. (Photo: D. C. Louw/Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Namibia)

Authors: Miklos Gaspar & Lucas Smalldon*

The first-ever comprehensive study on the concentration of radionuclides and trace elements in Namibia’s coastal waters revealed that while radionuclide levels are very low, there is an indication of higher than usual concentration of certain trace elements. Further study is required to determine whether these are the result of human activity along the coast or are due to the underlying geology, according to a scientific report delivered by the IAEA to the Government of Namibia in late 2017, based on research carried out at the Government’s request.

“The IAEA report provides excellent information about the current status and can be used as the basis for future monitoring activities,” said Axel Tibinyane, Director of Namibia’s National Radiation Protection Authority. “As marine resources contribute significantly to our national development, it is imperative that they be used sustainably. The report will help us do that.”

Following this preliminary research, the IAEA will continue to provide support to the Government to gain better insight into the high trace element levels.

In addition to the country’s increasing population, uranium, gold and diamond mining, as well as industrial activity, are on the rise and there is a growing interest in seabed mining for phosphates. Namibia is among the world’s top five uranium producers. To assess any impact on the environment of this increased level of human activity, a baseline needs to be established, as some of these undertakings could result in increased levels of radionuclides and trace elements. The data in the report can provide such a baseline.

“This project is the first of its kind and has provided new information on the Namibian shelf,” said Deon Louw, the marine scientist in charge of the study at Namibia’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources. “We need this knowledge to monitor and protect our marine ecosystem as human activity continues to rise.”

Increased coastal activities mean that new regulations are needed to monitor and manage natural and human-caused (or anthropogenic) radionuclides and trace elements that may contaminate the marine ecosystem, with potential impact on seafood, local populations and the economy.

Namibia’s coastal waters support a rich biodiversity and stretch along the south Atlantic’s turbulent Benguela current for over 1500 kilometres. Much of the coastline is a marine protected area, which is considered unpolluted. It is part of the northern Benguela large marine ecosystem — one of the most productive coastal ecosystems in the world — and supports valuable fisheries and mariculture industries. It is a highly dynamic environment: strong winds, seething currents, and underwater sulphur eruptions surround rich stocks of fish, plankton, and other marine life, including the world’s largest bacteria — visible to the naked eye.

Despite all this activity, little was known about Namibia’s levels of marine radioactivity and trace elements until now.

The study

At the request of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, in 2014 the IAEA began collecting a diverse range of marine samples off the coast. Over 500 samples were gathered, including sediment, seawater, fish, mussels and seaweed. Several thousand measurements were performed on the samples. More than 40 researchers from 11 institutions in six countries participated in the research project.

In addition to providing baseline measurements for ongoing pollution assessment and regulation, radionuclides and trace metal isotopes can serve as tracers to better understand oceanographic and pollution processes (see Studying the oceans through isotopes). The study of lead isotopes, for example, can help assess whether the lead is present naturally or as a result of human activities. Lead’s isotopic signature can also provide information on the sources of pollutants.

“This research not only helps Namibia, but will also continue to add international scientific value by improving knowledge of global patterns of marine pollution,” said Martina Rožmarić, a research scientist at the IAEA Environment Laboratories. “In studying the presence of natural and anthropogenic radionuclides and trace elements, such as lead, mercury, copper, and cadmium, off Namibia’s seaboard, we are filling in a critical knowledge gap on the world map.”

THE SCIENCE

Studying the oceans through isotopes

The concentration of radionuclides (natural and anthropogenic), trace elements and rare earth elements is difficult to measure. But measuring the levels of these substances and tracing them to their sources is central to understanding the state of the marine environment.

Several anthropogenic radionuclides can be detected at ultra-low levels; some, like the iodine isotope I-129 and the uranium isotope U-236, can be used as radiotracers to study oceanographic processes such as the movement of water masses or pollutants in the oceans and to improve the accuracy of marine dispersion models. Just like a colourful dye that can be observed in a water mass to see where it goes, these radionuclides have a unique signature that researchers can track to study different currents and see how fast it takes them to go from one part of the globe to another.

These isotopes are decaying slowly, which makes them a reliable tracer of natural processes, such as the circulation and mixing of water masses. But U-236 concentrations in the oceans are extremely low and can only be measured using highly sensitive accelerator mass spectrometry, which enables monitoring of ratios between U-236 and U-238, a more abundant natural isotope. In the Namibian project, these measurements were carried out at an IAEA collaborating centre, Spain’s National Centre of Accelerators in Seville.

*Lucas Smalldon, IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications

This article was featured in the IAEA Bulletin, March 2018.

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